Es Devlin: How Do Spaces Shape Our Memories And Experiences?

Jul 24, 2020
Originally published on July 24, 2020 10:03 am

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Power Of Spaces

How does a designer take an abstract idea and turn a space into an experience? Artist Es Devlin explores the influence of the spaces and structures we create—in theater, art, music, and beyond.

About Es Devlin

Es Devlin is an artist and designer. She is known for creating large-scale performative sculptures and environments that fuse music, language, and light.

Devlin has designed touring stage sculptures for Beyoncé, U2, Adele, The Weeknd, and Kanye West, among others—and has a two-decade long portfolio of design for opera, drama, and dance worldwide.

Her practice was the subject of the Netflix documentary series, "Abstract: The Art Of Design," and she has been named artistic director of the 2020 London Design Biennale. Devlin has also been awarded the London Design Medal, three Olivier Awards and a UAL fellowship.

She is supported by a team of designers at Studio Es Devlin who help develop and execute the design work as well as support Es's expanding practice as a solo exhibiting artist. Her large-scale installation, "Memory Palace," was exhibited at the Pitzhanger Manor and Gallery in London in fall of 2019 and earlier this year.

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On the show today, how spaces can create a singular experience...


ZOMORODI: ...Even when you're surrounded by thousands of screaming fans.

ES DEVLIN: If you're standing in a stadium of 100,000 people, how do you create intimacy on that grand scale?


BEYONCE: OK, ladies, now let's get in formation.

ZOMORODI: The set design for Beyonce's 2016 Formation Tour featured a 60-foot-high revolving monolith - a glowing cube projecting Beyonce as larger than life but with video imagery of her so close up that you feel intimately connected to her.

DEVLIN: How do you behave at once as this sort of diva icon figure - hero - and also be the little, barefoot creature - the little old you with your vulnerabilities?

ZOMORODI: This massive structure seems almost alive as it rotates and then splits open to reveal acrobats flying mid-air.

DEVLIN: You're adventuring into new territory, and that's where new things happen.


BEYONCE: (Singing) I got hot sauce in my bag. Swag, swag, swag, swag...

DEVLIN: We're making things that I would say are usually on the edge of being possible to make. They're usually in that little space where people can't quite say they're impossible, but they wouldn't absolutely vouch for their possibility.

ZOMORODI: This is artist and designer Es Devlin. She created the set for Beyonce's Formation Tour and has done sets for lots of musicians.

DEVLIN: Billie Eilish and U2 and The Weeknd.

ZOMORODI: Adele, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga - she's also designed large-scale sculptures for dance, opera and theater.

DEVLIN: ..."The Lehman Trilogy," which has just been showing on Broadway.

ZOMORODI: And she's also done her own art installations.

DEVLIN: The most recent piece that I made was called "Memory Palace" in an art gallery in London at Pitzhanger Manor. And then other works have included a large-scale mirror maze that took place in London in 2016. So it's quite a broad range.

ZOMORODI: So as you have designed for so many different types of people and events, how do you even begin when you have an idea that you are supposed to turn into a physical manifestation and then build it?

DEVLIN: Yeah, I think I tend to try to - you know, part of what I'm doing is trying to process from something that's quite abstract - like music or poetry or an idea - and process and turn that into something concrete. So I'm trying to stay with the castle in the sky, I guess - the thing that's built out of imagination - right? - the thing that doesn't need to worry about how it's going to stand up because I'll worry about all of that later. For now, I just need to stay with - if it's a piece of music, you know, that most mutable - that most evanescent of materials, music, is made of breath and made of air and made a frequency and made of vibration.


DEVLIN: How do I capture that, you know, into something that's concrete without killing it, you know? And that's often, really, in the delicacy of how you treat this thing as you put it through its processes.


DEVLIN: We're always seeking to create the most articulate sculpture - the most poetic instrument of communication to an audience.

ZOMORODI: Here's Es Devlin on the TED stage.


DEVLIN: It's a temporary population of 100,000 people who've all come there to sing along with every word together. But they've also come there each seeking one-to-one intimacy with the performer. And we, as we conceive the show - we have to provide intimacy on a grand scale. I call my work stage sculpture. But, of course, what's really being sculpted is the experience of the audience. And as directors and designers, we have to take responsibility for every minute that the audience spend with us.

We're a bit like pilots navigating a flight path for 100,000 passengers. And like any flight, the most delicate part is the liftoff - the beginning - because when you design a pop concert, the prime material that you're working with is something that doesn't take trucks or crew to transport it. It doesn't cost anything, and yet it fills every atom of air in the arena before the show starts. It's the audience's anticipation.

ZOMORODI: So you're holding onto that and the feeling that you want the audience and the performer to have, right? And then, how do you know that it's right? Like, when you are in rehearsals, do you go and stand on the stage? Do you sit where the audience - and get the audience's perspective? Like, what is the feeling that you - can you even describe it? - when you're like, oh, yes, it worked.

DEVLIN: You know, if you're rehearsing a piece, usually, many of the decisions about what the physical sculpture is going to be have already been made. So you can make decisions then about, how does this sculpture behave? You know, how does it move? How will the light hit it? And those things - it's really, I guess, most like cooking. You know, you sit there, and you - from years of experience - I mean, I'm not a very good cook, but...

ZOMORODI: No, me neither.

DEVLIN: ...I've seen people who are. And they just know they need to put a bit of fish sauce in here.


DEVLIN: And then they need to balance it with a bit of sugar. And then they need a bit of this. So, you know, when we're, you know, adding light and shade and movement to things, that's often the kind of process that it is. Obviously, when it's a piece where there's a large audience or whatever scale of audience, I sit among the audience, and I feel it. You know, I can tell - the audience is a very extraordinary animal as a thing. And audiences are ridiculously intelligent as a collective species - you know?

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

DEVLIN: They react. Yeah, you can't fool them.

ZOMORODI: In just a minute, we'll hear more from Es Devlin on how she sees spaces as protagonists in all of our lives. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


ZOMORODI: It's the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And we were just talking to Es Devlin about how she uses spaces to create an intimate experience for her audience. And as a designer, she has to form a relationship with each space.

DEVLIN: Absolutely. And often - you know, often, the space is a really important protagonist in the process. And an interesting thing happens when you work in one space repeatedly - so you have a sort of ongoing relationship with this protagonist in the process.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

DEVLIN: So, for example, there was a very small theater which I worked at a lot, called the Bush Theater, in the 1990s and the early 2000s. And it was, you know, a theater that only fit 75 people. The stage was probably, you know, 18 by 16 foot - it was a tiny little stage. And yet some of the finest actors in London wanted to, you know, perform there and started their careers there and things because of that intimacy with the audience. And because I did a run of sort of five or six shows - one after the other - there, I really began to, you know, have a sense of what each corner of this space could deliver, you know, and how it, as an instrument - if we're talking about spaces and sculptures as instruments - how to play the instrument. You know, I really began to learn it.

ZOMORODI: It frees you, in a way, when you know a space like that, don't you think?

DEVLIN: Well, I think you begin to have a conversation with it through time. And it's at that point that you realize, then, how important those ongoing collaborations are - whether they're with collaborators, writers, musicians, artists or with spaces. You know, and you really value those as you start to look back through time. You value the fact because what you do is you remember that the first time you walked into that space, you were one person at 25. The next time you walked into that space, you were a different person at 32. And then you walked into that space again when you were 47, and you were a different person. So it helps you to sort of do an audit on yourself or to keep tabs on yourself and to sort of remember how you've changed and who you are as you go along.


ZOMORODI: I've been thinking about my own relationship to spaces before the pandemic. And I just feel like, God, I took you for granted, office, where I got to hang out with people and write on whiteboards. Or I took you for granted, playground, where I didn't worry constantly about whether my kids were coming too close to other kids. And I wonder if you feel that there's this new appreciation that your audience might have for space because, you know, I'm guessing that when they would go to see one of your plays or see your set design at a show, they felt it in the moment, but maybe they took away the memory of it, but maybe they'll now also have an appreciation for it because they have experienced space differently.

DEVLIN: Well, I think you put that really beautifully. And, you know, the way that you just listed those spaces, they are protagonists in your life - you know, they're like your friends. But I do think there's an opportunity - I think, practically, we'll be making work outside sooner than we'll be making work inside. And I do think it's a really - you know, I often say when I work in a stadium that the most important thing that happens on the night has nothing to do with anything that I'm doing or that the person who's singing is doing - it's the sun setting is the real event (laughter).

ZOMORODI: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

DEVLIN: You know, we're seeing a glimpse of it over our heads, you know? And imagine if our spaces, you know, get used for gatherings and rituals and events and music and story - but using outside a bit more. And the internal architectures will, of course, be vital. There are caves - you know, the original Plato's caves - there are caves where we'll gather and watch the shadows. But I think we'll learn a lot by, you know, connecting a little bit more to the environment around us. And we've been talking a lot about, you know, that we come out of one system. And instead of sort of bemoaning the fact that we can't make theater or make collective artworks the way we used to immediately, I do think this is a time for really exploring - what do these new parameters drive us towards?

ZOMORODI: That's artist Es Devlin - you can hear her full talk at

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.